For many Republican politicos who were critical of Trump during the campaign, the fear of personal retribution from the leader of the free world is softened somewhat by their unwavering conviction of his incompetence. Several consultants and operatives, who requested anonymity so as not to provoke the president’s wrath, said Trump would likely be too overwhelmed and disorganized in office to keep working his way down the enemies list.
“I don’t think anybody’s too worried about Trump death-starring their business, because he’s still struggling to even make the Death Star operational,” cracked one strategist.
“When you’re really dealing with Putin and Turkey and Syria, is that county chair in Iowa who turned on you gonna get the attention of the president of the United States?” asked another. He paused and then added with a laugh, “Of course, that’s what staff is for.”
Indeed, Trump’s administration is not lacking for enforcers who share his instincts. Reince Priebus, now the White House Chief of Staff, publicly threatened Republicans who were withholding their support from the nominee in the final weeks of the election. And according to two knowledgeable sources, White House press secretary Sean Spicer used to maintain a “bad reporters” folder in his inbox to keep track of journalists he believed had treated him or the RNC unfairly.
But if consultants are worried about their contracts, and party officials about their positions, some of Trump’s opponents harbor deeper and more serious concerns. For Evan McMullin—who quit his job as policy director for House Republicans to launch a long-shot indie bid in 2016 under the #NeverTrump banner—the question of how President Trump plans to get even from the Oval Office is a singularly important one. Petty partisan punishments are one thing, McMullin told me. But as a former CIA officer, he has witnessed firsthand the rise of despotic regimes abroad. “If Trump uses state power to exact revenge on political opponents, that will be a very clear sign that he is a true authoritarian.”
During the election, McMullin’s candidacy unexpectedly threw his native Utah into contention, sending the Trump campaign on a frantic last-minute scramble to lock down the deep-red state. By the end, Trump managed to eke out a plurality win there, but he was left seething at McMullin’s meddling. The future president lashed out repeatedly at McMullin in the final days of the race, calling him a “puppet” for moneyed establishment interests. And the attacks only intensified once Trump won and embarked on his post-election victory tour.
McMullin told me that watching the president-elect rail against him at raucous rallies was a “chilling” experience. “I remember at one of his rallies when he was attacking me, he said something like, ‘He’s sort of a bad guy, this guy.’ I immediately recognized that as something I’d seen before overseas in places where authoritarians takes power. They try to criminalize their political opposition. They tried to do it with Hillary Clinton… and they could do it with more of us.”
When we spoke before the inauguration, McMullin made clear that it was still too early to know whether Trump would cross that line.* “Despite my concerns, I genuinely still have hope that he will not govern in the way that he said he would during the campaign,” he told me. “At least, I hope that’s the case, because it would certainly make my life a lot easier.”
* This article has been updated to reflect that Evan McMullin’s comments were made before Donald Trump’s inauguration.